New Ballooning Record Set In Antarctica

Jan 23, 2013

Scientists set a new ballooning record Wednesday in Antarctica. The two-ton Super TIGER balloon has now been afloat for 45 days, breaking the previous record on the frozen continent. The balloon carries equipment that collects data about cosmic rays from deep in the universe.

Ryan Murphy is a graduate student at Washington University in St. Louis, and he is part of the science team in Antarctica. He spoke with Jacob McCleland via Skype.

McCleland:Ryan, what exactly is Super TIGER and what’s it doing?

Murphy:Super TIGER is an experiment that is collecting cosmic rays, which are particle which are hitting the earth’s atmosphere. And we are trying to count how many of each type of element there is that is heavier than iron.

McCleland:Why is Antarctica the preferred place, the ideal place to do this type of experiment?

Murphy:Basically because it’s a great place for ballooning. We like ballooning because it’s much, much cheaper than a satellite. We can turn things around in 4 or 5 years as opposed to 10 or 15 for a satellite. And it’s cheaper. And we can still get above 99.5, 99.9 percent of the earth’s atmosphere.

In Antarctica we can go around in about two weeks and get back to roughly to where we started. So we’re actually on our third trip around. And the other advantage to Antarctica is that the sun is up almost all the time, or it’s up all the time and it just changes elevation in the summer. And that means that our balloon expands and contracts, but it doesn’t shrink too much when the sun sets. That can really limit your duration.

McCleland:What will the data you collect in Antarctica with Super TIGER, what this data be used for? How will it be used?

Murphy:So we’re trying to test a theory about the origin of these galactic cosmic rays. So these particles, the theory that we’re trying to test, says that they are made in giant massive stars and then they are thrown out of the stars by some violent winds {audio drop} star’s evolution. And then a nearby star explodes and they find their way to us. These massive stars, they’re building up elements inside them, certain elements more than others compared to what we would call normal material in the universe or solar system material. And so we’re basically looking at differences between the source of these galactic cosmic rays and our solar system and interpret how much of each element there is and trying to figure out what that tells us about the environment they are born in. 

McCleland:For folks that have never been to Antarctica before, like, well, most of the rest of us, could you describe the continent for us?

Murphy:We’re at McMurdo Station, which is the biggest station on the continent. When we first arrived we were in a military cargo plane. So no windows or anything. We’re in a C-17 and we land and they’re like, ‘Alright. Get all your cold weather gear on.’ And then they open the door and all of a sudden, this huge, immensely bright light comes in. And that’s one of the most striking things. It’s almost always very bright because you got the sun above all the time, and then you’ve got ice on the ground and the ice just reflects the sun. And so the big colors are the kind of grey and black of the rock, the white of the snow and then the blue sky. And that’s pretty much all you’ll see. No plants. No land animals. The only animals we’ve seen are seals and penguins and skuas, which are these nasty gulls. They’re really big seagulls and if you walk out of the dining hall with food in your hand, they’ll fly right at you and hope that you drop the food and they’ll swoop down and get it.

McCleland:Ryan Murphy is a graduate student at Washington University in St. Louis. He is currently at McMurdo Station in Antarctica. Ryan Murphy, thank you for your time.

McMurphy:Yeah, no problem.